When 12 British bus drivers won a fortune last year it launched them into a new world of tabloid tales, family feuding - and chihuahuas.
If Corby, central England, never had a Millionaires' Row, it does now. On one of the town's leafier thoroughfares, where detached houses are set back from the busy road, live two newly minted millionaires. These residents used to be bus drivers earning £17,000 ($25,600) a year, until their syndicate of 12 men won a £38m ($57.3m) jackpot in the EuroMillions lottery. The story of the lucky drivers, working men turned into instant millionaires, was a happy one for Corby, which labours under a reputation for labyrinthine post-war housing estates and unemployment, after the closure of the steelworks that brought thousands of Scots to the town. But luck, and millions, also bring hassle - and gossip.
All 12 were reported to have immediately quit their jobs. Twitter rumours reckoned one driver stopped his bus mid-shift and simply walked away. The press quickly focused on luckless fellow driver Hazel Loveday, who dropped out of the syndicate six months earlier. Other, even less welcome tabloid stories followed, alongside a natural curiosity about what each winner would do with their £3,169,553 ($4,784,044). But what has happened to the drivers, aged between 34 and 65, nearly a year on? Has it changed their lives for the better, or worse? And has it changed Corby?
When I heard ... I thought I'd better tell the family. That's when it started to kick off. From then on it's been nothing but grief.
There are two types of story about lottery winners - that they have blown the lot, or they are skinflints - and only one acceptable ending: money can't buy happiness. Real life, however, is more complicated. The Stagecoach depot where the millionaires once worked is a shabby, friendly place where drivers snatch a moment for a cup of tea. For a while, though, its gates were closed as journalists stood outside the fence and promised cash in exchange for dirt on the winners. One driver gave a reporter a piece of her mind after his paper printed "all kinds of lies about one of my friends", she says. "It got a little difficult at the time. Every passenger was asking, 'Were you one of the winners?"' says another driver. "I was in the pound shop in my uniform and I got asked, was I one of the winners?' Well, no, I'm in a pound shop."
The unlucky drivers believe the big win is a mixed blessing. "They say it's cursed, don't they?" says one driver of winning the lottery. "They are all bored now," nods another. At least one fact from the flurry of publicity after the win was untrue: not every driver quit the depot. Despite being £3m richer, Stephen Derrick has gone back to work - in the office, not as a driver - to cover staff shortages. A fellow winner says it is only temporary, but he was still working there when I called in November.
Derrick's decision to keep on working is typical of the Corby millionaires. Their lives have changed, but not as dramatically as you might think. No one seems to have acquired airs and graces, and local people are not begrudging of their fortune. But visiting the homes where the drivers lived before they struck lucky is a melancholy experience. Many houses look derelict. At least winners' luck has created some housing opportunities for those lower down the ladder. When syndicate leader Chris Smith left his council house on the tatty Danesholme estate local kids smashed the windows, but they have been repaired and a young Polish man has just moved in. At the smart modern house where another winner, Neil Taynton, once lived, the new occupant is redecorating before her baby arrives. "The electrician said this is a lucky house," she jokes. "Neil could've decorated it for me."
Some winners have kept their old homes in the family. John Noakes, who bought an Aston Martin with his winnings, handed over his old semi to his niece. Just as friends predicted at the time of the win, Charles Connor and his partner, Julie Farquhar, are still living in their modest rented terrace, one of the original houses put up in the 50s. When I call they are, perhaps unsurprisingly, on holiday abroad. Another winner, Charlie Gillion, 64, was reportedly planning to exercise his right to buy his semi-detached council house where he has lived for years with his wife Penelope, 65, a retired cleaner.
The families of the winners I find are keen to protect their privacy, particularly since many of the stories about the winners have been untrue. The rumours that a driver quit mid-shift "was a load of shit", says one of the winners. In fact, the drivers learned of their win late in the evening, and no one was working at the time. Twice it was falsely rumoured that one of the winners had died just hours after hearing of the victory. In fact, the 12th member of the syndicate, who chose to remain anonymous, faced an operation in hospital. The reports surrounding Loveday, a single mum with a young son, were, one driver says, nonsense: she left the syndicate not because she couldn't afford the £2-a-week contribution but because she wanted the group to do the Irish lotto instead.
Even without the inaccurate stories, it is unlikely that a millionaire of any description would invite a reporter into their house without hesitation, without suspicion, without asking them for ID, and make them a cup of tea - but this is just what Alexander Robertson does.
Robertson, a thin, friendly man with a Scottish accent, has moved into Millionaires' Row. Before the win, he and his fiancee, Morag Laidlaw, did not have passports because they couldn't afford to go abroad for a holiday. In fact, Robertson had not seen one of his grandsons for two years because he couldn't afford to travel to Scotland. Laidlaw was made redundant when a curtain shop closed in town. "We were struggling," says Robertson.
Now a new 4x4, a new Mini and a camper van stand in his paved driveway; the couple have bought two chihuahuas, Maria and Buster, and have an enormous surround-sound system in the living room. "Everything's gone to plan," beams Robertson, with gleaming teeth, newly fixed. Except it hasn't, quite.
The winnings have certainly not gone to their heads. "We still do the things we used to do," says Robertson. "We still go to the bingo. I've had a few people saying, 'What the hell are you doing at the bingo with all the money you've won?' I just take it with a pinch of salt. You've got to keep living. It hasn't changed us."
The bus drivers who didn't win may joke about being asked if they are millionaires when they are in a pound shop, but that is exactly where Laidlaw can regularly be found. "I still shop in Poundland," she says. "I've not changed at all. I'm just me. I don't think you do change. Well, some people do, some people don't."
"She bought me a Kindle for my birthday," adds Robertson, and Laidlaw picks up the story. "He wanted the headphones for £15, £16. I said, 'Poundland do them - you'll get them there."'
"So I'm restricted to Poundland headphones," says Robertson ruefully.
From a family of bus drivers, Robertson has had a busy working life: born in Leicester, central England, he grew up in Glasgow and lived in Newcastle after his marriage broke down, before coming to Corby 25 years ago. His first job was in the bingo hall and then he got on the buses.
When he was telephoned by Noakes one Friday night last spring and told his GBP2-a-week contribution had won more than £3m, he thought it was a wind-up. "I often thought about winning the lottery, but never as much - I imagined winning £250,000 so I could buy a wee place and be quite happy," says Robertson.
He couldn't sleep the night he won. The next morning, he realised the news was already all over Facebook. "When I heard that, I thought I'd better tell the family." He phoned his eldest son. "That's when it started to kick off," he says. "From then on it's been nothing but grief."
Robertson has four sons, two from his first marriage and two from another relationship, while Laidlaw has three children. But his win has led to rows with the elder sons about how the money should be shared. Now, Robertson declares, "they are not getting a penny".
If his fortune caused rows with his eldest sons, it has also triggered a dramatic reconciliation. Robertson last saw his youngest son aged eight, 18 years ago. Both had since tried to find each other but with no luck, until the son saw the news reports and suddenly knew where to find his father. They had a "very emotional" reunion, says Robertson. "Money can't buy that sort of happiness - when you meet your son for the first time in 18 years. When we met it was like we had never been apart. It just clicked. He wouldn't let me pay for anything, either." His son is taking him and the family to Florida next year, "and he's paying for it," says Robertson.
The unlucky Stagecoach drivers may console themselves with the thought that the winners are now bored senseless, but Robertson certainly isn't. "I've got plenty to do," he says. "It's finding the time to do it all. I do miss work to a certain extent - I miss the driving and meeting up with the lads - but I don't miss the hassle." Another misconception is that lottery winners are besieged by scroungers - Robertson has not received a single begging letter. Have friends tapped him up? "It's only the odd one or two who say, 'Give me money'. I just say, 'I'll buy you a pint and that's it'. I can't say people have changed towards us." Others haven't been so lucky. According to Robertson, another of the Corby winners had to move away because of death threats from local drug addicts.
In the febrile days after the big win, it was suggested that the syndicate might share their good fortune with unlucky Loveday, even though she had chosen to leave the syndicate. "If we do decide to do something about her it will be private," said Derrick at the time. "We all feel sorry for Hazel, but what can you do?" Connor was quoted as saying. "You've got to be in it to win it." Did the winners give her any money? Loveday did not respond to my attempts to contact her but according to Robertson, the group were planning to give her something until they believed the rumours that she sold her story to a tabloid newspaper. An interview was published in the Sun but Robertson admits he does not know how much money, if any, she received.
Robertson sounds like he has been very sensible with his money. He invested £1m with Barclays Wealth and also bought five properties in Corby, which he is renting out. "It gives me confidence to know that I've got that bit coming in," he says. Laidlaw, who has had breast cancer, says she has more important things to worry about than money. "We're just comfortable," says Robertson. "It's nice to know that we don't have to worry about bills and we can buy the things we want to buy." Another expense will be marriage: engaged for four years, they haven't been able to afford a wedding. "She'll soon be Robertson," he says. "When he stops biting his nails," adds Laidlaw.
After they got their passports, they went to Benidorm for a break. Laidlaw hated it, but they befriended an expat English couple who showed them "the different side of Spain", as Robertson puts it. "It was so chilled out and relaxing, it was wonderful. It was a totally different lifestyle." They decided to buy a three-bedroom detached villa in Spain with a swimming pool for a bargain £150,000. "I like Corby, and Corby has been good to me," says Robertson, "but with all the hassle, we got over there and liked it and thought we could live there."
Corby, as Robertson says, has been good to the winners. His reluctance to leave, and the fact that so many of the winners are still living there, surprises some locals. "Why would they want to stay here?" says one man. It would be an exaggeration to say the win feels like a win for the town, but local people don't begrudge them their fortune. "People were happy for them," says Lisa Dixon, who served Smith the winning ticket. "It was some good news for Corby for a change." Smith popped back to thank her for bringing them good luck. "I'm no luck at all - I just give it to other people," she smiles.
A little bit of fortune has trickled down. News of the jackpot brought dozens of people to the bus depot looking for work. "The media did the job for us," says one driver. "Within hours we had people turning up asking for work." According to Stagecoach, it received five times the number of applicants for the jobs available. "With the drivers leaving, it meant there were 12 more jobs in Corby," says one of the winners, "so it benefited 12 other families as well."
Last week Robertson and Laidlaw left Corby to live in Spain. They feel it will be better for Laidlaw's health, and Robertson, who ended up in hospital with chest pains attributed to stress, wants to get away from it all. But despite the family rows and health worries, he is certain: he still feels lucky. "It's gone excellent. Couldn't be better," he says, with a big smile of his new teeth.
- Guardian News & Media